How I Avoided the Ministry and Broke the Spell of Religion

Editor’s Note: Unlike most contributors to Rational Doubt, this one is not a member of The Clergy Project. Lucky for him, he doesn’t qualify. He never became clergy, so he didn’t have a pastor’s struggles with how to handle his changed beliefs. He has certainly had religious struggles, though. After chatting with Clay Gibney over breakfast in Lynchburg, VA (home of the fundamentalist Liberty University), I asked him to write about how he managed to stay out of the ministry and eventually leave religion all together. There is much more at his blog, Life After Forty. 

What were Clay and I doing in Lynchburg? Read on…

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By Clay Gibney

I recently had the opportunity to listen as Dr. Andy Thompson interviewed Linda LaScola at Washcon 2015 in Lynchburg, VA. Andy asked Linda about memorable interviews and stories from her book, “Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind“. Earlier this year, I purchased the book and found it an utterly fascinating read. It reminded me how lucky I was that I changed my mind about entering full-time ministry some 30 years ago.

Allow me to back up a little.

I attended Liberty University in the 1980’s as a pastoral major.

Jerry Falwell, Founder of Liberty University
Jerry Falwell, Founder of Liberty University

While attending, I was fortunate to find a part-time job at a computer store, just as the PC revolution was taking off. I spent most of my week learning theology and attending Bible or Christian ministry classes, but in the evenings and weekends I was immersed with learning about Apple IIe computers, IBM PCs, Compaq computers and MS DOS. It was a blast.

I enjoyed the Biblical education I was receiving, but when it was my turn to practice pulpit preaching in class, I just didn’t have the mojo or drive that my fellow students had. Thus my doubts began about my fitness as a pastor. My confidence was further shaken while learning disturbing things about how the Bible was assembled, including the anonymously written gospels and Pentateuch. I was shocked to learn of many Biblical contradictions, and was disappointed that the gospels and most New Testament letters were all written at least 30 years, or in most cases, over 40 years after Christ. I remember looking around the classroom to see if others appeared as concerned and confused as I was.

Oddly, when we learned about troubling aspects of Biblical authorship and textual criticism, one of two things usually happened. Most students seemed able to compartmentalize the issues in their mind and not get tripped up. It was like an inner circle of shared secrets. Other students, however, decided to choose a new career path for “various reasons.” I held on to my faith and continued my original path to full-time ministry, but I got lucky because opportunities to grow in the newly burgeoning computer field opened up for me.

I soon arrived at a crossroads moment. The computer store where I worked part-time gave me an ultimatum: go full-time with them as their main tech, or leave. I stayed, got married, and eventually raised three boys and two girls. With my faith still intact, I later completed a theology degree in 1989 and got heavily involved in church, serving as teacher, church board member, and occasional worship leader and pulpit fill-in speaker.

Then one day a bombshell arrived. My oldest son declared he was an atheist at the age of 21. What?! His mother and I invested more time and energy in him than with the other children hoping that he would be would set an example to his siblings!

My wife home-schooled all five kids, and although she was aware of the rumblings from our son, she kept much of it quiet. I was devastated but not angry. At the time, I was still a deeply committed fundamentalist young earth creationist (YEC). After getting over the initial shock, I started a journey to understand what made him an atheist. I wanted to find the holes and flaws in the arguments that had betrayed everything we taught him.

My son’s lost faith created a lot of tension in the house. We began to push him out the door because we feared his impact on the other kids. Surprisingly, he ended up at Liberty University, which he chose because they had a computer science program and his college costs would be cheaper with an alumni parent. We corresponded often over the next few years while I continued my own journey. I was grateful for the open dialog and mutual respect we shared. It was good.

The thing that I didn’t expect was to encounter so many intelligent and cogent arguments against Christianity. I was in a protected bubble during my high school and college years. As I grew older, cracks formed in my faith but I routinely dismissed the cognitive dissonance in my head by rationalizing the issues, suppressing the doubts and reinforcing my original indoctrination. I wrestled for many years before the cognitive dissonance was finally cleared away. My full journey is too long to post here, but in short, I ended up an apostate.

During the last stages of my trek, it was often on my mind that if I was wrong, the consequences could be eternal damnation. The fear of hell and the loss of heaven kept me in chains, which I believe has always been the intent of those religious doctrines. Ultimate control. It keeps people in bondage by offering the most tantalizing thing imaginable (eternal life with a perfect body) while also offering the most extreme punishment the human mind could conceive (anguishing fiery torment that never ends).

Unfortunately, my family became fractured from fundamentalism along gender lines. All three of my sons abandoned the faith. My oldest was first, followed by the younger two. I was last, but I kept it quiet for a long time. I hid my growing doubts from my wife. Eventually, that and other factors took their toll and we separated and later divorced. I’ve lost contact with my two daughters who see me now as a pawn of the devil. It’s been very painful.

In addition to Caught in the Pulpit, I read another book by Daniel Dennett called Breaking the Spell.

Breaking the spell cover

The book title originally made me snarl, but later I realized that it described how I felt. The spell was broken for me and my sons and the world now made a lot more sense without the blinding fog of fundamentalist religion.

Today, my relationship with my sons is good but religion and divorce have created a very divisive wall separating the rest of my family. And while it is truly wonderful to be released from the bonds of the Bible, I still have relationships to repair and restore. I hope eventually that will happen. But because religion is involved, I have my doubts.

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Clay GibneyBio: Clay Gibney, father of five, is IT Director for a legal technology association headquartered in Austin, TX. He has worked in the technology field for over 30 years in a variety of roles. His formal higher education came from Liberty University. His liberal arts degree in religion wasn’t particularly useful in the technology field, but it wasn’t a hindrance either. He currently lives in Roanoke, Virginia with his fiancé and her daughter, and they enjoy getting together with the many new friends they have made in the last few years in SHOR (Secular Humanists of Roanoke).  He blogs at Life After Forty.

>>>> Photo Credits: Breaking the Spell-Religion as a Natural Phenomenon Personal copy, on bookcase, taken by Linda LaScola

“Jerry Falwell portrait” by Liberty University – Liberty University. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jerry_Falwell_portrait.jpg#/media/File:Jerry_Falwell_portrait.jpg

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